Spring migration is really ratcheting up at this time of year. Witmer Stone was always interested in bird migration, and, as I described in The Fascination of Nature, he once took advantage of a unique opportunity to observe nocturnal migrants in action. Many birds migrate at night; it’s thought that the associated cooler temperatures and lower turbulence facilitate body temperature regulation and make for smoother flying conditions. Nocturnal migrants can be heard calling on spring and autumn nights as they pass overhead, and can be spotted with a scope trained on the moon, but on March 27, 1906, a huge fire at a Philadelphia lumberyard lit up the sky so brilliantly that migrating birds could be seen flying in the glow of the conflagration. Stone wrote all about it in The Auk, and if you want to read about the remarkable event, with some wonderfully descriptive writing that foreshadows Bird Studies at Old Cape May, click here.
Stone, like hundreds of others, went to see the fire (a 3.5 mile walk round-trip from his Regent Street home), but soon noticed the migrants. When the flight was heaviest, he estimated that 200 birds were in view at any moment, and some that were flying too low actually caught fire and went down in flames. A Sharp-shinned Hawk soared around overhead, attracted by the commotion.
The venerable ornithologist William Brewster wrote to Stone that his Auk effort was “one of the most interesting and best written articles on birds that I have ever read.” Stone was undoubtedly thrilled to receive the commendatory letter from an elder ornithologist for whom he had boundless respect, but it probably took him as much work as it took me to decipher Brewster’s illegible scrawl (and now you can see one of the reasons it can take someone five years to write a book about a dead birdwatcher):
Stone didn’t mention the name of the lumberyard, saying only that it was located in West Philly, near Bartram’s Garden. That set off a few bells in my head, because that was the approximate location of the McIlvain’s lumberyard, where my maternal grandfather worked for decades. When he died, I inherited a book published by the company in 1947 to celebrate 250 years in business, Philadelphia Hardwood, 1798-1948: The Story of the McIlvains of Philadelphia and the Business They Founded. I looked in the book, and there it was: an account of the 1906 fire that burned the place to the ground. The passage even included an image of a newspaper cover from the next day:
Here’s my Grandfather Irwin (on the right) working at McIlvain’s:
I’m sure my grandfather heard about the big fire that happened not too long before he started working at McIlvain’s. Little did he suspect the interest it would hold some day for that crazy grandson of his – the nutty one who was always running around looking at birds.